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Swordfish Fleet Must Stop Fishing to Save Turtles

U.S. orders boats operating out of San Pedro to cease long line practices that push endangered reptiles toward extinction.

March 12, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

The federal government shut down California's swordfish fleet Thursday, ordering the two dozen boats to stop stringing more than a million baited hooks across a large swath of the Pacific Ocean because they are inadvertently snagging sea turtles and driving them toward extinction.

Most of the San Pedro-based fleet, which began fishing off the California coast when the courts pushed the boats out of Hawaii with similar restrictions several years ago, is likely to return to those islands this spring to resume fishing when a federal court order is lifted.

"We expect that most of these vessels will go back to Hawaii and target swordfish," said Tim Price, an assistant regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Price said the government had been forced to close a 1,200- to 1,700-mile-wide swath of the Pacific off the West Coast after biologists determined that the fleet was inadvertently catching -- and killing -- too many sea turtles protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.

A growing number of marine biologists fear that, if this type of fishing is not curtailed, the leatherback sea turtle will go extinct within a decade and the loggerhead sea turtle will continue sliding toward a similar fate. Although the West Coast sword fishermen want to catch only swordfish, the 1.5 million hooks they release each year also snag or entangle seabirds, sharks, marlin and a variety of endangered sea turtles.

Some of the air-breathing turtles drown, unable to reach the surface after getting hooked underwater. Most of the ones that are caught are released alive, but they often die later from internal injuries caused by being hoisted out of the water by hooks embedded in their stomach or flesh, government scientists say.

"Based on the status of the population and the number of these interactions, we concluded that we are putting an endangered species in jeopardy," Price said.

The ban announced Thursday focuses on one type of fishing in an expanse of the Pacific Ocean that begins 200 miles off the West Coast and extends another 1,200 to 1,700 miles westward.

The crackdown forbids only "long lining" for swordfish, in which lines of baited hooks are unfurled as far as 50 miles off the stern of boats. The fleet sets these lines within 100 feet of the surface and marks them with submergible lights that attract curious turtles as well as swordfish.

Federal officials are hoping that experimental fishing gear -- using larger, circular hooks and a different type of bait -- will reduce the chances of snagging turtles. Under a new plan proposed by federal officials, long lining for swordfish will resume in April in Hawaii, using this gear. Initial tests showed a reduction in the turtle catch of 60% to 90%.

Lillo Augello, president of Western Fish Co., who has lobbied on behalf of the mostly Vietnamese American fishermen, said he was relieved that the boats would soon be able to operate out of Hawaii. He said he hoped the new gear would allow them next season to fish off California's coastline too.

Thursday's ban will take effect April 12, after the end of the regular swordfish season. Augello expects that the 11 boats remaining at sea will have enough time to get back with their catches before the ban takes effect.

So far this season, Western Fish has unloaded 1.5 million pounds of swordfish at its dockside warehouse on Terminal Island, sending fresh steaks to restaurants across the United States. "We had a good season, so I'm not so stressed about it," Augello said.

Conservation groups, which forced the government crackdown on long line fishing by winning federal lawsuits in Hawaii and California, promise to keep up the pressure.

Todd Steiner, director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said some scientists question whether the new fishing gear is as effective at saving turtles as the government says.

"I want, as much as the next guy, to find a techno-fix for sea turtles to keep them from going extinct," Steiner said.

"But I want to make sure it works."

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